Making these savory Buffalo Chicken Tacos on a weeknight is quicker than ordering a pizza. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Stirs: How to whip up delicious weeknight meals that will leave ample room for quality time around the table

Editor’s note: For even more recipes, you can follow culinary columnist Sara Jeran on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

BUCKHANNNON – Dinnertime seems to roll around quickly each evening. Busy work and school days do not allow for lengthy cooking projects, but time constraints will not stop the “what’s for dinner?” questions.

If you’re able to commit 45 minutes to an hour, however, I assure you, you will be able to easily achieve weeknight dinner success. This hour includes prep, cooking, family visiting, and cleanup. Our schedules have been turned upside down this past year. Initially, I found myself having random meal times with little to no preparation. This was a bad habit; no plans were leading to poor dietary choices and incomplete meals. I quickly realized it was crucial to maintain a routine (even if it meant adjusting to a new one) while quarantined. With some reinvented thinking, my eating habits rapidly turned around, and I was not only feeling better, but my stress was greatly reduced.

Having a weekly meal plan is an excellent idea, but this is overwhelming for a disorganized person like myself. If you are a planner and are able to stick to a weekly meal plan, I applaud you. Keep up the good work. As for us unorganized folks, there are still ways to ease dinnertime stress. This starts with grocery shopping. I rarely have a grocery list that is specific to recipes I am planning because I have learned that throughout the week, inevitably, I will change my mind.

Here is how I shop: Produce is key for me. Each week, I ensure I have plenty of salad fixings. I also select a few vegetables that are in season to prepare during the week, and I round this part of my shopping out with a couple of fruit choices. In addition to produce, I purchase fresh dairy and protein for the week. Simply buy the fresh ingredients that you love, so cooking and eating are pleasurable. It’s OK to buy the same veggies each week; just challenge yourself to try an array of preparations.

Keeping a well-stocked freezer/pantry aides in the ease of weeknight cooking. You will notice that flexibility opens a world of opportunities. In my freezer you will see chicken, shrimp, fish, and usually a ground meat. I also stock frozen spinach and broccoli for vegetables in a pinch. My pantry is home to multiple grains along with both canned and dried beans. Nuts and seeds are a delicious snack as well as a healthy salad topping. Tinned fish is both healthy and sustainable, so I keep tuna, sardines and anchovies readily available. Alliums such as onions and garlic are essential for a quick flavor boost to any dish. The combination of fresh and pantry ingredients gives way for endless culinary possibilities. My protein choices are plain, so whatever flavor profile I am craving, they are adaptable.

Instead of planning an entire meal, I will often chose one ingredient as a building block. Bell peppers for example could lead to bean and rice fajitas, a Cajun chicken skillet, or an Asian pepper stir fry. This one fresh ingredient combined with mainly freezer and pantry staples can be transformed into three vastly different easy weeknight dinners. This style of cooking gifts me flexibility with what sounds tasty that day, while eliminating the pressure of sticking to a firm menu. This will become easier with increased comfort in the kitchen. Do whatever level of planning works best for your lifestyle. There are evenings when a hearty salad topped with nuts, seeds, veggies, and tinned fish could not be tastier. A healthy and satisfactory dinner does not require hours or fancy skills, just quality ingredients.

Having a few favorite recipes in your back pocket is always a smart idea. Meals that can be recreated from memory for days when your brain tapped out at 4 p.m. This security will lessen the chance of poor decision-making. For me, my go to is Tex-Mex food. I can whip it up without thinking, and it is an easy way to pack veggies into a meal. Fajitas can be on the table faster than pizza delivery, and I feel better eating what I prepared. I do enjoy takeout, but I just try to limit the frequency.

I am sharing two recipes with minimal steps and labor intensity perfect for weeknight meals. First is a skillet Tuscan style salmon, in the most flavorful sauce. Heavy on pantry ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes and canned artichokes, this one is elegant enough for company. The salmon may be swapped for any fish you prefer, or chicken if you do not care for fish. Then, I’m sharing a crowd-pleasing shredded buffalo chicken taco recipe. The chicken is almost effortless, and could be used for sandwiches, nachos, quesadillas, or on top of a salad. Think buffalo wings, but healthier and way easier.

Less time in the kitchen allows for extra time around the table, and regardless of what you are eating, these are valuable moments with our loved ones. Prioritize listening; often, the most critical subjects are discussed at the dinner table. I believe preparing food is important on many levels, health being the most obvious. Food has the ability to create a relaxed environment, this alone will benefit shared time. Whether it be a funny story or a difficult subject, I hope the ease of a dinner together encourages expanded communication. Remember, communication leads to understanding which in turn leads to acceptance. As the days are taking a positive turn, let’s stay connected, not only to our personal needs but also the needs of others starting with dinner plans.

Happy cooking. Peace.

Tuscan Salmon Skillet (Recipe for 2)


  • 2 salmon fillets
  • 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3/4 cup chopped canned (or jarred) artichokes
  • 1/2 finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes, and 2 tablespoons of oil from the jar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 2 cups fresh spinach (or baby kale)
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream (or coconut milk)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon dried Italian herbs
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary (or 1 teaspoon dried)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper


In a skillet, add sun-dried tomato oil, and a little additional olive oil.

Sear salmon (seasoned with dried Italian herbs and salt and pepper) over medium high heat until crisp on each side, remove and set aside. It doesn’t have to be fully cooked; it will go back in the sauce.

Reduce heat to medium, add shallots, garlic, tomatoes, artichokes, lemon, butter, paprika, season with salt and pepper. Allow to soften a few minutes, add stock and allow liquid to reduce and thicken.

Lower heat again and add cream, rosemary, spinach, and salmon back to the skillet. Cover and cook until salmon is cooked through and the spinach is wilted (just a few minutes).

Serve over wild rice, noodles, or with garlic bread.

This colorful Tuscan Salmon skillet comes together quickly (and beautifully, as shown.) / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Shredded Buffalo Chicken (for tacos and more)


  • 1 lb. chicken breast or thighs
  • 1/2 cup Franks Red Hot
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons Tabasco or white vinegar


Combine all ingredients. For the Instant Pot, pressure cook for 11 minutes. Quick release pressure.

For the slow cooker, cook on high for 5-6 hours.

For both, remove chicken and shred, return to pot and toss with the sauce.

Lime Basil Slaw

  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • 1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped*
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley*
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped chives*
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil*
  • Salt and pepper


Combine all ingredients.

*use whatever herbs you have and like. Alternatively, mix up a packet of Hidden Valley ranch, add pepper, lime juice and herbs (I pass no judgment here).

The finished product — Buffalo Chicken Tacos with Lime Basil Slaw / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Jeran is a culinary enthusiast, gardener, beekeeper and Buckhannon native. Follow her on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

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